A few weekends ago, I was eating lunch with my wife when she, mid-taco and with immense gravity, announced that Prince Harry would get engaged in the near future. Some 18 hours later, Prince Charles’s second son announced his engagement to American actress Meghan Markle, an event that made headlines throughout the English-speaking world.
It turns out that two of my wife’s friends are expert royalologists, capable of divining the time, place, and manner of future events among the British royal family from clues that most of us wouldn’t be able to make sense of, if we saw them at all. Her friends nailed not only the timing of the engagement but the design of the ring (“a really juicy modified Asscher with cushion corners”), interpreted the meaning of the wedding venue (St. George’s Chapel, an intimate venue, apparently, but one where the queen has attended a wedding before), and have strong opinions on when the happy couple might welcome their first child (pregnancy to be announced next Christmas, baby to follow by mid-April).
Royal family fandom looks kind of bizarre from the outside, until you realize that there isn’t much practical difference between speculating about Prince Harry’s engagement and speculating about LeBron James’s free-agent destination or Jon Snow’s true parentage. Celebrity is celebrity, and fandom is fandom, after all. A century after the institution stopped being politically relevant in Europe, we still use royal titles as shorthand for power, glamor, and elegance. Relatively forward-thinking and egalitarian nations still subsidize nobility and royalty just for ceremonial value, and not just in the U.K., but in places like Belgium, a country that was founded more recently than the state of Missouri.
It’s easy to see the allure. The historical and political importance of monarchy is obvious, and their influence extends into the arts and sciences: King James I subsidized Shakespeare, while Charles I of Spain subsidized Magellan, and so on. Perhaps more important, the existence of literal kings and queens in a modern democracy makes everyday life seem a little like a fairy tale. And not just any fairy tale, but a fairy tale like King Arthur or Cinderella, in which an ordinary person is revealed to be special enough to join the royalty.
But those stories also underpin the dark truth of the monarchy, an institution based on the belief that some people are superior to others by divine proclamation, and because monarchical rule is inherited, by implication that superiority is genetic. That idea’s been diluted over the centuries into a Lockean consent-of-the-governed justification for a modern constitutional monarchy, but that’s just a convenient change in branding: The truth is that some countries have kings because they haven’t completely negotiated away the notion that some people ought to have supreme power over others because God says they’re better.
With that in the background, monarchy — even the toothless tabloid monarchy to which Prince Harry and his family belong — becomes not only bizarre but offensive, particularly for Americans. After all, another thing John Locke inspired is the Declaration of Independence, a document whose bulkiest section is a list of grievances against the very institution we’re now treating as a benign tabloid curiosity. We fought a war over this, for God’s sake.
So why, if I find the American fixation on the royal family so odious, can I not get enough of The Crown?
The Crown, which debuts its second season Friday on Netflix, is the brainchild of screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has now written a film, a play, and a TV series about Elizabeth II. Morgan’s best work offers serious actors the chance to devour the ever-loving shit out of the scenery while recounting events that, for large portions of the audience, are still in living memory.
It’s effective — Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker won Academy Awards for their performances as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen and Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, respectively; Morgan himself was nominated for screenwriting Oscars for The Queen and Frost/Nixon. In its first season, The Crown won three Emmys and was nominated for 10 more, including another writing nomination for Morgan.
Morgan’s work is ambitious and clever, but it’s also to a degree straightforward and conservative, with a reverence for institution. You get the sense that Morgan’s overriding career goal is to become Sir Peter Morgan one day, which is another way of saying that while he writes acclaimed and popular screenplays, he’s also written three feature-length films about Tony Blair.
In Morgan’s hands, The Crown is not the withering critique of the excesses of royalty that it could be. The plucky hero is the actual queen of England, and from that perch we can usually see only as far down the class ladder as socialites and Conservative politicians. By putting the viewer at the table with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, The Crown blinds us to the experiences of the kind of people we know and care about in real life. But part of the allure of caring about royal intrigue is that it allows you to ignore the real world, and the fantasy world of the dramatized monarchy is spectacular, from the first moment of the trailer for Season 1.
The Crown frequently bumps up against affairs of state, but its greatest conflicts are interpersonal and, for all their grandiosity, eminently relatable. On one level this is a show about a young couple trying to make their marriage work while both find their footing professionally and socially. Claire Foy and Matt Smith give Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, respectively, more humanity than the people they’re playing in real life have ever dared reveal. You could strip away the costumes and titles and make an excellent TV show about Smith and Foy as accountants or schoolteachers and the essential drama would be just as compelling.
But why would you? Why make a prestige soap opera about normal people when you can dress it up in the clothing of royalty? That clothing informs everything, from the dialogue to the sets and costumes to the very appearance of characters like Sir Tommy Lascelles, the queen’s stiff-upper-lipped fixer, played with ironclad seriousness by Pip Torrens. Such things aren’t the soul of the show, but they’re the joy of the show — ambitious and unrepentantly grandiose.
The Crown retains that grandiosity, even as the focus shifts from establishing a postwar national identity in Season 1 to consolidating that identity in Season 2. The big-name supporting actors — Jared Harris, Jeremy Northam, and Emmy-winning John Lithgow — have their roles reduced, leaving the fate of the nation, and the show, in the hands of its younger generation. The most notable new face is Matthew Goode as Antony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who romances and eventually marries Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret. Without revealing too much, I’ll say this about Goode as Armstrong-Jones: I’d always enjoyed Goode’s work as an actor, but it wasn’t until this performance that I truly understood why women my age found him so attractive.
For all the hoopla around Lithgow’s portrayal of Churchill, The Crown does not suffer for the absence of its older generation. That’s not only a welcome acknowledgement that Foy and Smith could carry the show on their own, but a nod to the interpersonal drama of The Crown being more interesting than the political drama. After all, the royal family is fascinating in large part because they live in a world where the propriety of a courtier’s divorce is a more pressing issue than, to use an example from Season 2, the Suez Crisis. Without the specter of Churchill stomping around the periphery — and did Lithgow ever stomp — there’s less of a temptation to turn the attention of the show away from palace intrigue.
But there’s only so much intrigue; for all the periodic barking about the monarchy being in peril, the monarchy is never actually in peril. Even at its most tense moments The Crown really has very low stakes, just like The King’s Speech, which centers on a radio address, or The Queen, which is resolved by a one-minute TV statement, or even the travails of the real-life royal family, which seem to revolve around wearing hats and shaking people’s hands. Perhaps that feeling of safety and continuity is part of the appeal of a constitutional monarchy.
Even in The Crown’s moments of scandal, Morgan frequently plays it safe. He is conspicuously uninterested in anything more than a superficial interrogation of the institution to which he’s devoted so much of his professional life: Rumors of Prince Philip’s infidelity, which drive large portions of Season 2, are only winked and nudged at, and Philip and Elizabeth habitually express a modern wealthy liberal’s attitude toward issues of race and sex, attitudes that feel out of place in the setting of the show. But I suppose that’s the danger of putting the story of the British monarchy in the hands of a British writer — you can show only so much scandal and still have a shot at becoming Sir Peter.
Morgan treats the monarchy with the awe and wonder that it’s meant to evince. As hundreds of millions of people scramble for scraps of information about the modern Cinderella story playing out between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Morgan gives us a glimpse of what life is like inside that mysterious and grand institution. Here’s your royal wedding, your glamorous costumes, your reminder of why the operative modifier for the queen is “majesty.” Here’s your real-world fairy tale, dramatized and in HD. As the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, puts it in Season 1: “Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess.”
It would be a troublingly naive real-world attitude toward an institution that’s definitionally incompatible with American values, but it is rapturous in the world of fiction. And by virtue of its juxtaposition to names and events we all recognize, The Crown’s fairy tale elements seem all the more fantastical. Americans are so intrigued by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle getting engaged because the royal family, to us, is a soap opera. So, too, is The Crown, and rather than taking place in the real world, it’s on television, where such things belong.